Foundation MamaWatoto dreams of a world where vulnerable and marginalized people participate in the realization of lasting positive change for themselves and the communities they live in. In the district of Sororti in Northern Uganda, an estimated 150 children spend their lives on the streets. Foundation MamaWatoto and its local partner RICODE with support and funding from Stichting Impulsis and other partners are to initiate a project aimed at rehabilitating and re-integrating street children into the community they live in. The foundation of this project is already underway in the form of identification and mobilization of children who are to benefit directly from the project as well as mobilization of the community at large.
This blog summarily looks to the causes that result in the children living on the streets, the plight of these children, and the conventional response of the state. Finally the blog looks to the vision of foundation MamaWatoto for the project that aims to explore and harmonize the causes behind the issue and not simply cater to the symptoms of it.
Adopted by the United Nations, a street child is defined as “Any boy or girl who has not reached adulthood, for whom the street (in the broadest sense of the word, including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland, etc.) has become her or his habitual abode and/or sources of livelihood, and who is inadequately protected, supervised or directed by responsible adults”. Observations by UNICEF point towards 4 major reasons that cause children to live on the street, namely, political instabilities, rapid urbanization and increasing disparities in wealth, runaway population growth as well as a breakdown in family values.
For a better part of the last three decades, Northern Uganda has suffered through several internal conflicts in some of its areas. Initiated and sustained by, firstly, the Ugandan People’s Democratic Army (UDPA), then the Holy Spirit Mobile Army (HSMA) of Alice Lakwena, and finally the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony. The rebellion proliferated by the Lord’s Resistance Army has been particularly heavy on the children of Uganda. [i]Prior to the war there were no street children in northern Uganda, but today they are visible in all major towns.[ii]
In Uganda, the war affected children lethally; they were kidnapped and forced to become soldiers, beaten, raped and exposed to several atrocities and other inhuman acts. So also, many were orphaned and emerged out of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, many still remained there with nowhere to go. Many yet, have become the “street children” of Uganda.[iii]
Majority of the street children in Uganda join the street between 5 and 10 years (44%). 42% joined when they were aged between 11-15 years and 6% when they were aged 16-18 years reveals a situational analysis done by ANPPCAN Uganda in 2015.These children do not have access to basic human necessities such as food and water, clothing and proper hygiene, health care, education and means of livelihood and perhaps the most important to a child, family support.
The need for survival gives way to corruption of an innocent childhood. Deplorable conditions and desperate situations drive these children to resort to drugs, child prostitution and petty crimes. Many of these children have been victimized by defilement and early teenage sexual intercourse, resulting in contraction of sexually transmitted diseases and early unwanted pregnancies. In a personal communication made to researcher Annie Weber[iv], Akol Anthony sums up the challenges faced by these children:
“They lack proper accommodation, clothing, employment opportunity, food. Some survive on milk or one meal a day. They face discrimination; there are a lot of stereotypes. Some people have a negative attitude towards them. The younger ones face bullying from the older ones. They are always beaten. They are arrested from police.
They steal anything valuable. Sometimes they cut the roof of the house and they send the little ones in to steal. But they can’t keep them in prison because there is not enough food to feed them. And they don’t bathe frequently”
Child protection and state responsibility
Children living on the streets in northern Uganda are often discriminated against by the police, local government officials, their own peers and the communities in which they live and work. Settled community views these children as delinquents, nuisance mongers, criminals and substance abusers. The children are often arrested and brutally beaten by the police, sometimes as a pre-emptive measure colored by presuppositions. Once arrested, they may be detained till the time that someone takes responsibility for them. Days can transpire into weeks or months sometimes. Moreover, the conditions under which these children are detained are often harsh.
Instinctively so, the contemporary response is repression. A report by Human Rights Watch has noted that key government institutions are failing to adequately protect street children. It states as follows:
“The Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, charged with child protection, and local government 0fficials periodically order general roundups of street children throughout the country. These roundups usually occur ahead of special events, official visits, international conferences, or are a way for the ministry to be seen to be tackling the perceived “problem” of street children. At various times, police around the country have detained large groups of up to 100 children without charge in police stations with adults. According to knowledgeable sources, these roundups often occur at the behest of the ministry of gender and other officials. Many children are released back to the streets after several days, or in some cases weeks, often only after paying a bribe or being forced to work for the police while in custody, including cleaning.”
Despite of some strong domestic legislations[v], programs and policies[vi] adopted to protect rights of children in Uganda, their effectiveness is still under question. The government seems to have failed to meet its obligation to protect vulnerable children, including children on the streets from abuse by the police, government officials and others. The Uganda Human Rights Commission has also noted that the government’s approach of “resettling and rehabilitating street children without addressing the factors that send children to the streets is an unsustainable solution in the long run” and added that “there is an urgent need to address the causes and not just the symptoms”.
While positive steps have been taken by the government in the form of ratification of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), very little is being done in terms of scrutinizing and assimilating the causes behind the issue. Most of the direct action taken is by Non-Governmental organizations[vii] based locally or in collaboration with international partners.
Foundation MamaWatoto is one such organization that has rolled its sleeves to contribute with direct action. Working jointly with its local partner RICODE in Soroti, the foundation has launched a sustainable, three-phased, multi-year humanitarian project to continuously protect, support and empower abused and mistreated children and young mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 years.
The foundation is to establish a permanent rehabilitation center for up to 40 children. Environment friendly, this multi-functional facility shall with the help of its qualified staff, create a safe, nurturing and structured living environment for the children. Looking to salve the trauma undergone by the children in the program, the foundation, in possession of three acres of fertile land, will offer mistreated and abused children ‘horticulture therapy’. Recognized as a beneficial and effective therapeutic mechanism, it is used within a wide range of rehabilitative, vocational and community settings. Moreover, the land is to be multi-purpose- therapy, food and self-sustenance and for surplus sales at the on-site store. The proceeds from these sales are to be reinfused into the program.
The goal of the program is to enable its participants to become independent and reintegrate into their community as its well-functioning member. With this in view, the foundation, working in consort with the local government and their vocational training program “Skilling Uganda”, shall determine appropriate vocational training courses for the children. These include bricklaying and concrete practice, carpentry and joinery, hair dressing etc. Set to be complete at thirty-six months, after a series of assessments, the participants are encouraged to find a footing in the community making way for new children to share the same opportunity to receive rehabilitative care, vocational training and support.
[i] Doom, R., & Vlassenroot, K. (1999). KOny’s Message: A new Koine? The Lord’s Resistance Army
in Northern Uganda, African Affairs (Oxford Journals/ Royal African Society), 98(390), 5-
[ii] Amone, C., & Anenocan, J. (2014). Armed Violence and Street Children in Northern Uganda,
1986 To 2014. Asian Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities Vol, 3, 3.
[iii] Ruaudel, H., & Timpson, A. (2005). Northern Uganda–from a forgotten war to an unforgivable
crisis–the war against children. Institute for Security Studies.
[iv] Weber, A. (2013). Challenges Affecting Street Children in Post-Conflict Northern Uganda: Case
of Gulu Municipality.
[v] The Children Act- Chapter 59, The Employment Act 2008, The National Council for Children
Act- Chapter 60
[vi] National Strategic Programme Plan of Interventions for Orphans and Other Vulnerable